Friday, March 14, 2008

Incremental Lhasa (February 25, 2008)

An interesting answer lies in the capacity for people to develop and create their own spaces to better afford their needs. A good example of this was a home visit to a friend’s family. They were living in a two room apartment in old part of Lhasa. There were six people who were living there, including a two month old baby. One room housed two beds and the altar, and the other room held two couches (which doubled as beds), a TV, and some chairs and side tables. Since they were government employees and retired, they were able live in a space that the government provided, without paying too much. Because the father is the only one that works, they are very limited in what their housing options are.

The word is that new apartments are being built further away, and since the area is in the center of the city, there might be better uses of such buildings than housing low-income people. There was a rumor that their building was going to be torn to build a supermarket. Most people said that these new places are actually smaller. They referenced the size of the space by counting the number of concrete forms used in the ceiling. They were worried about being moved, but also the need for the children, who would soon be adolescents to have their own space. The family really needed more space, especially for the daughter who just had a baby. Location was incredibly important to them because the mother was able to go to Jakhong Temple everyday, and all of the family had been born in that specific area. Many of the older people are retired and visiting the temples and making circles around them is an incredibly vital part of their lives. Even so, many buildings in the area had been rebuilt and each time, the apartments were smaller to get more people in.

So, I had been describing spaces in between that people could take over and adapt to their own use, acknowledging that it is much more difficult to do in urban environments than rural environments. Yet, somehow my jargon about space, adaptation, and change didn’t trigger anything to her family. It was only when I asked where the kitchen was that I became excited and this became a REALLY pertinent conversation. Apparently, it was outside the two rooms right where we entered. I didn’t notice it when we first walked in. But, there it was, the kitchen had been totally added on, into the public hallway. They had some leftover space because they were next the communal bathroom. They had done the work themselves and used old doors and sheet metal. It served as storage, a foyer, a kitchen, and a space they took as they claimed as their own. While this type of building was not allowed, it was allowed in the fact that they paid the district council a small fee each month. They later told me that having a separate kitchen was especially important because of the smells and smoke it produces, and it is important to keep it away from the altar.

Upon further inspection and looking a little more closely, it became clear that almost everyone in the apartment building had done something similar. This was only possible because the hallways were accidently wide enough to accommodate some extra building. Some had added on kitchens as well, and others had added on bedrooms as the family grew.

It was really quite a fascinating visit. From the outside, all these buildings look the fairly the same, with the white washed stone walls and black trapezoidal trim around the windows. Individualization did take place with the type of bars or window boxes that were around each window, but it was still fairly standardized. Inside, however was a whole other world. Each family lived in a one or two room apartment, shared toilet facilities (very poor I can assure you) and one common spigot for the entire building. But, all the hallways had been individualized, and built out into, creating a whole different formal, aesthetic and functional world, just as fascinating and interesting as it is on the outside. My friend encouraged me to just walk into other courtyards and I as did, it was very clear that everyone was taking over what little space they could.

So, an interesting question is why people are actually doing this building on their own? And should it be embraced and supported? In this case, it seems it could be argued that there was not enough space initially provided and therefore the people had to commandeer some excess space that wasn’t being used efficiently outside to better accommodate their needs. If this family had had a separate kitchen originally provided in their apartment, would they have found the need to build on and adapt as they saw fit? It is possible. This may be the answer why middle and upper and incomes don’t add onto their apartments into hallways. This is certainly not to say that wealthier people do not add onto their homes, but it is almost always in the case of single family detached dwellings. But, higher density apartment dwellings seem to be only done by poorer people. And they can get away with it in certain places. I say get away with it because it is a strong aesthetic issue that has tended to be very much frowned upon by regulating agencies, and such aesthetics have become synonomous with disease, crime, sin, and many other things that reformers over the years have tried to fix. But, I would argue that the act of doing in this context maybe even more important are just as relevant to middle and upper incomes as lower ones, but the means to express and they standards by which they are to be evaluated have made this a very difficult act.


Best moment: We stopped by a woman’s home who my friend’s NGO was helping support at school. My friend seemed to know everyone here. This woman brewed barley beer (chang) right out of her home, and offered me a glass. I, of course, obliged, thinking it couldn’t’ be worse than yak butter tea. It really wasn’t that bad, but Tibetans are really serious about keeping your glass full. So, after I had probably one or two glass fulls, I was pretty ready finish (most of you know how much I like beer anyway). But, then my friend said there was a tradition where you had to take three sips (each time being refueled) and then drink the whole glass at once. I pulled it off, but it did remind me or having to drink a full glass of beer right before a futsal game in La Paz.

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